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Jul 032014
 

Question

We want our son to be at least bilingual Spanish/English and hopefully have a good command of French too.

I look after my son full time since my wife works during the day. So I am desperately trying to work out the best way to approach making sure our son will be fluent in Spanish. If we use the OPOL approach, he will only hear Spanish in the morning, evening and at weekends but I’m worried he wont have enough exposure to Spanish this way. We do go to Spain a couple of times a year (6 to 8 weeks in total) where our son is exposed to Spanish 100% of the time.

Currently I tend to speak to him mainly in Spanish at home, with some English too, but my Spanish is not perfect and I do make mistakes. Should I just speak to him in English and hope his exposure to Spanish will be enough to ensure he learns it?

With regards to French, would it be best to wait until he can speak at least some English/Spanish before trying to teach him this language? Or perhaps I should speak to him in French and let him learn English from my English family here and when he goes to school? My French isn’t as good as it used to be (I lived in France for a year but that was 10 years ago) but I can say pretty much anything I need to.

Our main concern is Spanish, but if we can squeeze in French too that would be fantastic! To make things more complicated, my wife and I tend to speak to each other mainly in English but we do also switch to Spanish/French and sometimes mix all three languages in a single sentence!

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks
Jason

Answer

Hello Jason,

Thanks for your question. First of all, I would like to congratulate you for your conscientious desire to raise your child bilingual or trilingual! If I understood correctly, you are English and your wife is Spanish and you are currently living in England. For clarity purposes we will call English the majority language and Spanish the minority language since you are currently living in an English speaking country. I’ll attempt to answer each of the questions you have and I hope it will help you in defining your family’s language plan.

If you decide to use OPOL, experts say that a child must be exposed to a significant amount of language input in order to become fluent in the language, but as important as the quantity of time is the quality of the language exchanges that take place. A child can learn a language with interactions that are limited as long as those interactions are regular in time and rich in content. A few things to think about and perhaps discuss with your wife are how committed she is to teaching Spanish to your child, her level of energy when she comes home from work in the evening and the language resources she has available to her (i.e. books, music, her own ingenuity, etc.)

If you consider teaching the minority language in the home and relying on the environment to teach your child the majority language, you can rest assured that this is also a viable solution. If you are comfortable speaking Spanish to your child, your “less than perfect Spanish” is good enough as long as you are not the only source of language input (which is the case for you since your wife will speak to him in Spanish and since you spend a significant amount of time in Spain).

As far as the third language is concerned, I would recommend introducing French through occasional stories, music or play or through an outside source. You can choose to do it simultaneously with the English and Spanish or wait a few years to introduce it. Both ways can work, but my suggestion would be to focus on the English and Spanish in the early years (until the child is a few years old).

Finally, the fact that you speak mostly English with your spouse will help to reinforce your child’s passive understanding of that language. And as long as you are not mixing the languages when you speak directly to your child, he should be able to learn to make a clear distinction between the languages and that will give him a solid foundation for his early bilingual life! Remember that there is no one method that fits all and that each family must choose their own personalized plan according to many individual factors. A family’s bilingual plan may even evolve over time according to changing needs. Good luck to you and we’d love to hear of your successes!

Kind regards,
Maria

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  5 Responses to “Which language should I speak to our bilingual son?”

  1. […] has been published today and I am giddy with excitement. I'd love for you to go and read my answer "Which language should I speak to my bilingual son?" and leave a comment. And if you've got a question about your own bilingual or multilingual family […]

  2. Thanks so much Maria for taking the time to answer my question. I think I will continue to speak to him in Spanish then, and maybe English when we visit my mom’s home here in the UK. It will also motivate me to improve my Spanish.

    My son is 3 months old and he says a few words (or tries to!) like ‘gato’ in Spanish and ‘water’ in English. And he can understand some Spanish already, for example if we say to him ‘donde esta la luz’ he will point up at it. It’s so exciting that he is beginning to understand Spanish!

    I will post some updates here as he progresses. He is in Spain right now with my wife until the end of August so he is getting 100% exposure at the moment. They are staying at my wife’s parent’s farm so he is also living in a totally different environment to the one he is used to at home. Although not related to languages, I think that in itself is a great thing for him to experience. I can’t join them until my new passport arrives, so I’m stuck here in the UK…

    Thanks again.

  3. Correction: I meant to write 13 months old, not 3 !!

  4. Hooray! So exciting to hear back from you Jason and to know that you are well on your way to establishing your family language plan! I agree, this is the most exciting time when language begins to come alive for these little ones! (My youngest is 20 months old and so we are living these precious moments too!) Your little one will no doubt sense your enthusiasm and this will be a great encouragement for him in his progress!
    Also, the farm IS related to his language progress! The more varied and rich the activities we provide for our children, the greater the opportunities to expand their vocabulary and expression in all sorts of contexts. A farm in Spain? Sounds wonderful to me! Best of luck to you and I hope your passport arrives quickly!
    Cheers,
    Maria

  5. For the third language for your child, I would suggest to take it one at a time first, but Maria is right to introduce French little by little through music, or plays. We shouldn’t rush our children to learn this things. Be patient, and better to learn it yourself first so your child can learn from you too. In Singapore, we encourage parents to learn mandarin and introduce it to their children when the time comes. Good luck!

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